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National Invitational Tournament

Source: Jamie Sabau / Getty

INDIANAPOLIS — It was as if the entire city of Terre Haute along with all of Indiana State’s Indy-based fans and alumni collectively renamed Hinkle Fieldhouse “Hulman Center East” for a night.

A sell-out crowd of nearly all Sycamore fans packed inside the old arena Tuesday evening and watched this Indiana State team create even more magic in a 100-90 victory over Utah to advance to the NIT Championship.

“We showed a lot of heart, fight, togetherness,” said head coach Josh Schertz. “Utah is a great team. Their size, but also their skill. They are as good a team as we’ve played all year. To watch (Utah) make 17 threes and then still find a way to win is just an unbelievable credit to our guys and an even better environment.”

The win ties Indiana State’s longest post-season win streak ever, matching the Trees’ fabled run of 1979 when they won four games to get to the NCAA national title game. Now the Sycamores hope to have a better ending to the story than what it was back then.

The Sycamore jumped out to a 17-7 lead by the 14:53 mark of the ballgame. At this juncture, Robbie Avila had already hit three of his first four 3-point shots. Both teams would live and die by the 3-point shot in throughout the game.

Coach Schertz’s comment was no exaggeration. Utah would attempt 29 3-pointers throughout the game making 17 of them. Indiana State took 34 and made 12 of them.

Many of those 3-point shots came in late in the first half in which Isaiah Swope, who would finish the night with 15 points, kept demanding the ball go through the cylinder. He and Ryan Conwell both combined for four missed 3-pointers in the span of two minutes which had Schertz call his only timeout of the game’s first 30 minutes.

The missed shots by ISU let Utah back in and even take the lead in the final minute of the first half. A fast break lay-up by Conwell allowed the Sycamores to take a 44-44 tie into the locker room.

“We knew they were going to be tall,” said Avila. “So, we had a game plan to meet the physicality they brought and I think we did a good job.”

After trading threes to start the second half, that plan went into perfect practice. Indiana State, mindful of their eagerness to settle for threes in the first half, began pounding it down the throats of the Utes in the paint. Avila, in particular, attempted just one 3-pointer in the second half, the rest were shots which he made battling in the paint.

His efforts along with those of Xavier Bledson off the bench and Swope allowed Indiana State to outscore a Utah team that was taller and more athletic than the Trees down low 50-28 in the paint. At one point Bledson, who stands a meager 6-foot-6, compared to the Utes pair of big men in Ben Carlson (6’9) and Brandon Carlson (7’0), battled for three offensive rebounds in one take before finally getting a lay-up to go and draw a foul.

“When you get guys who are winners like this the sky is the limit of what you can accomplish,” Schertz said of his team’s fight.

The Sycamores would not be outwitted in any aspect of the game as two more 3-pointers from Bledson and Julian Larry gave Indiana State a 77-66 lead with 7:58 to play, the volume and passion of the Indiana State crowd as palpable as it had been all night. It undoubtedly had an effect on the Utah players.

“We feed off the energy that the crowd brings us,” Avila said. “Sycamore Nation is one of a kind and we got the job done today because of them.”

In the face of a game slipping away, Utah did not abandon their 3-point shooting as it seemed as the minutes ticked away the Utes could not miss from deep.

What made up for that was Indiana State’s continued pressure inside. A lay-up underneath off an assist from Larry gave ISU the century mark scoring and put the game on ice in the final minute.

The game is the second of this postseason in which the Sycamores have eclipsed the 100-point mark in a game. The last time was against Southern Methodist in the first round.

“We believe in each other. This group is just special,” Schertz said. “They don’t play for anything but to try and win and make each other better. I’ve been a coach for a long time and this is as special a run as I have been a part of.”

Ryan Conwell finished the night leading the Trees with 27 points. He had four of ISU’s 12 3-pointers. Avila added 26 points to go along with 10 rebounds. Swope and Larry each had 15 points.

Their last foe of the season will be Seton Hall. The Pirates laid waste to Georgia in the second game of the night 84-67. The two will square off on Thursday for the NIT Championship at 7:00 pm EDT inside Hinkle Fieldhouse.